Though best known for My Fair Lady, the musical duo of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe also created one of the all-time great Broadway musicals: Camelot. Lifted high on a wave of soaring music and exquisite lyrics, audiences are compelled to witness the happy rise and tragic fall of King Arthur’s court. The first half of the play celebrates the courtship and marriage of Arthur and Guinevere. Inspired by his love for Guinevere and for justice, Arthur creates the Round Table and establishes a kingdom where might is to be used for right.
Sadly, Arthur’s dream is no sooner accomplished than his greatest knight, Lancelot, and his beloved queen fall into an adulterous affair. As a result, the Table cracks, the dream shatters, and England falls into civil war. But the play does not end there.
In the final scene, the despondent king comes upon a boy lurking in the shadows. When he questions the lad, he discovers that he has sought out Arthur in hope of becoming a knight. Arthur is shocked and asks the boy how he learned about the Round Table. Through stories, the boy tells him, stories about brave knights who fight evil and rescue fair damsels. In response, Arthur knights the boy and commissions him to stay behind the lines and survive the battle so that he may carry on the tales of Camelot.
I have always been intensely moved by that closing scene, for it enshrines a great truth about us and our world. Because we are noble creatures made in God’s image, we will continually strive to build Camelot. But because we have fallen into sin, our dreams will always fail in the end. When I took my teenaged children to see the play, I impressed this paradoxical truth upon them, challenging them to assist in the building without being dismayed by the inevitable failure.
It was, therefore, with great joy that I took up David Skeel’s True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World. Like few others apologists I’ve read, Skeel demonstrates a keen insight into the riddling, enigmatic nature of our dreams, our desires, our struggles, and our humanity. It is not just that we persist in our attempts to build a utopian society in spite of the fact that all such utopias have failed. We simultaneously yearn for beauty, even though we know it is fleeting and cannot be sustained in our flawed world. And we sympathize with (and demand justice for) those who suffer—even though we live in a world where pain is ubiquitous and seemingly arbitrary. And if that were not enough, we insist, in the face of an unconscious, impersonal natural world, on making up theories and ideologies and systems of belief for which we claim universality.
According to Skeel, all of these desires to reach after some kind of lasting Goodness, Truth, or Beauty are essentially paradoxical: for they set at odds our experience of the world and our experience of being human. They are so paradoxical (and so essential), in fact, that they simultaneously demand an explanation and offer themselves up as criteria for judging which of those explanations is most likely true. If any given belief system can only account for one side of these paradoxes, it is likely false. But if a system is wide and deep enough to account for both—one relevant to all ages and cultures—then it demands scrutiny and perhaps allegiance.